I've been pondering the following set of issues for the last few months: after reading Walzer on Judaism and politics, and following up with some additional research on Jewish ways of reading sacred texts, I've noticed the following trend, which repeats itself across religious and non-religious readings of texts of all kinds: a tendency to declare a text to be fundamentally broken, and use its broken-ness as permission to 'fix' it. A few examples:
• In the period following the canonization of texts and the return from exile, the discovery that the text of the Torah does not comprehensively address every aspect of personal life. Because it fails to do so, the text is 'broken' and requires supplementation in the form of priestly or rabbinic instruction, and thus the distinctive forms of the Mishnah and Talmud, as well as the wide variety of regulation of behavior.
• The tendency of Protestant Christians to assume the Bible is a comprehensive text that starts at the beginning and ends at the end, and also covers every useful piece of information one might need for life. Thus reading Daniel to find dieting advice. (This piggybacks on the need to find Christian-friendly versions of all pop culture phenomena.) (Other forms of Christianity begin with the assumption that the text is insufficient on its own, but this hardly gets around the problem: the text must now be read as unable to answer those questions Tradition or Authority has claimed to definitively interpret.)
• A number of books that are traditionally read against the express intentions of their authors: reading Descartes' Meditations as a skeptical work; reading The Brothers Karamazov as though Ivan is the dramatic center. These are failures of imaginative identification: because I, modern secular liberal, find skepticism to be more persuasive than the existence of God, Descartes must have known and intended to make the skeptical case more persuasive.
What these all have in common is, I think, the belief that a text one finds compelling or interesting or provocative can only ever possibly support the beliefs one has in the first place. If you like Bob Dylan and are a conservative, Dylan's work must have secret conservative themes; if you like Shakespeare and are Catholic, Shakespeare must have been a Catholic. The failure in all these cases is to treat the work in question as something that exists autonomously and permanently apart from the person who reads it: it gets to make a claim in its own voice. And this has to be the pleasure of reading: listening to another voice, taking it on its own terms, and only then deciding whether to agree or disagree, not as a final definitive judgment but as a way-station.
All of which is to say: I'm fairly certain the Spring Quarter will involve giving my students James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time, since they will have to read W.E.B. DuBois and I would like to talk about something more interesting than the DuBois-Washington debate (or Malcolm X versus MLK); Baldwin says some things I think are completely correct, some that I think are wrong, and some about which I am not certain, most especially when he talks about the theoretical future when America elects a black president. Being confused, productively, is one of the most valuable things there is.